Steve, 18, first felt the thrill of gambling at the age of 15.
His “first high” came when he won a couple hundred dollars while playing dice, he told ABC News. To speak candidly, he’s asked to be in shadow, to use a different name and alter his voice.
Between 60% to 80% of high schoolers say they’ve gambled for money in the past year, and up to 6% are addicted to gambling, according to the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors.
“Young people are significantly at higher risk of developing gambling disorder than adults, in part because their brains are not fully developed. Their ability to evaluate risk, their ability to handle loss, isn’t as secure as an adult,” Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, told ABC News.
Steve says that his love of playing basketball and baseball morphed from a sports obsession into a gambling obsession, which soon grew into a full-blown addiction.
“I kind of used gambling as an escape from simple things like boredom, sadness, anger, even joy. Just like, you know, drugs and alcohol for some people,” Steve said.
In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting, paving the way for at least 30 states and Washington, D.C. to legalize the practice.
The legal age to gamble in the U.S. is either 18 or 21, depending on the state and type of gambling, but experts warn that young people are still finding ways to place bets.
“The casino is available in many people’s homes, in their pocket on their smartphone,” Fong said.
Steve said he was able to illegally gamble by accessing legal sports betting sites using other people’s accounts who were of age. He also used unregulated offshore, illegal websites.
Steve racked up thousands of dollars in debt. Bookies started to call him in the middle of school, he said. It became a fulltime job, isolating him from his friends and family and keeping him up all night. He even began stealing money to pay back his debts.
At first, Steve’s parents failed to fully grasp how destructive his son’s gambling addiction had become, Steve’s dad told ABC News.
“I had to confront him about what was going on, how bad was it. It was very difficult to get truthful responses from him, because he was very protective of that behavior,” Steve’s dad said.
With his family’s support, Steve joined a 12-step program. He briefly relapsed, went to rehab and is now in recovery. Watching sports is still a trigger for him, he said.
Steve’s sponsor, Gary Schneider, said he, too, was once addicted to gambling.
“I believe they’re targeting the young,” said Schneider, who is also a national board member of Stop Predatory Gambling. “They want the next generation. They label it gaming, because now it’s a game that they go on and do that. It’s really gambling.”
Legal gaming companies refute that claim.
“The U.S. gaming industry invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually in consumer education, employee training, research and support. Our collective responsible gaming commitment includes comprehensive protocols in place to verify the identity and age of customers. It’s our priority that gaming remains entertainment strictly for adults,” Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, told ABC News in September.
FanDuel, a betting platform that often advertises during major sporting events, owns nearly half the online legal sports betting market in the U.S.
In a statement from September, they told ABC News that “FanDuel strictly prohibits wagering by minors…[and] employs a strict identity authentication process at sign-up with information that’s validated by independent verification services before an account is permitted to place a wager.”
But Steve’s dad said it’s not enough.
“It’s in every sporting event. There’s advertisements constantly. We don’t sit and watch a game together like we might have done when he was younger. It has been hard to have removed that from our relationship. There’s just not that level of education and there’s just not that level of awareness of it as a problem,” he said.